Claudio Abbado | Biography


Claudio Abbado
© Felix Broede / DG
1933 ‒ 2014
It is with deep regret that Deutsche Grammophon announces the passing of one of the greatest conductors of the last century, a towering artist whose life’s work will surely withstand the test of time. DG was and is proud to have accompanied Abbado on his musical journey over the forty-six years he spent with the label, and to have had the privilege of preserving his work on disc.
Claudio Abbado will be remembered as not only one of the outstanding conductors of his era, with an astonishing capacity to go straight to the heart of the music he performed and reveal its secrets with unfailing clarity, but as a man whose tireless work and communicative gifts, in encouraging musicians, founding orchestras and establishing festivals, had a far-reaching impact on cultural life as a whole.
He also leaves behind an extraordinary recorded legacy that bears witness to his personal development as a musician, his enthusiasms for such composers as Mahler, Debussy, Verdi, Mussorgsky and Schubert, his championing of contemporary works, by Nono, Stockhausen, Rihm and others, and his achievements with the institutions that shaped his career: the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the London Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker and Berliner Philharmoniker.
Born into a musical and artistic family in Milan in 1933, he studied piano, composition and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in his home city, and went on to Vienna to follow a postgraduate course in conducting under Hans Swarowsky in the mid−1950s. He won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize in 1958, and made his debut at La Scala, Milan, two years later, conducting music by Scarlatti at the Piccola Scala. The scope of his cultural interests was already clear in the repertoire he performed during this early period, which included Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges at Trieste in 1962.
After winning the Mitropoulos Prize in 1963, he worked for several months with the New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, and was then invited by Karajan to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker for the first time at the Salzburg Festival, in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in 1965. Milan saw him direct the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni’s Atomtod in the same year, and in the following season he conducted his first opera in the Scala main season, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, with Pavarotti and Scotto. After conducting the opening nights of the following two seasons, he was then, at the age of only 35, appointed the theatre’s musical director, a post he held until 1986. His tenure was marked by a number of ground-breaking initiatives: the repertoire was expanded to include 20th-century classics, major new works, including Stockhausen’s Samstag aus Licht, were commissioned, guest conductors such as Carlos Kleiber were invited to the theatre, and the institution itself was opened up to the city as a whole, with a concert programme specifically “for students and workers”. Abbado himself oversaw the introduction of a new scholarly approach to pieces from the standard repertoire, and together with his gift for creating textures of the utmost transparency, this allowed familiar scores to emerge as if freshly minted: Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia performed using Alberto Zedda’s critical edition of the score, was followed by the same composer’s La cenerentola, and L’italiana in Algeri, while a landmark production by Giorgio Strehler of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra  under Abbado fully established the piece as one of the composer’s greatest operas. 
Abbado made his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon in 1967: a benchmark reading, still in the catalogue, of Ravel’s G major piano concerto and Prokofiev’s Third with Martha Argerich and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The beginning of Abbado’s association with the London Symphony Orchestra led to many of his subsequent recordings on the yellow label being made with these forces, including versions of his Barbiere and Cenerentola, while other La Scala productions, such as Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, were recorded in Milan with the theatre’s orchestra and chorus. In time, Abbado amassed a huge discography on DG, including the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schubert, and more than 20 complete operas.
Having served as the LSO’s music director from 1979 to 1987, a period rich in recordings, notably of music by Mozart (Piano Concertos with Serkin), Mendelssohn (symphonies), Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy, he moved to Vienna to take up the post of artistic director of the Staatsoper in 1986.  Highlights of his tenure included productions of Wozzeck and Pelléas et Mélisande, both preserved on record by DG. The following year he was made the city’s “general music director”, and he went on to establish the “Wien Modern” festival, initially intended to showcase contemporary music, but ultimately a celebration of all the arts. 
Abbado devoted much time to nurturing young talent, and was founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, which developed into the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981; with them he conducted recordings on DG of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Schubert’s complete symphonies (both winners of Gramophone’s “Record of the Year” award, in 1986 and 1988 respectively).
At the end of 1989, amid the turmoil and optimism of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected by the players of the Berliner Philharmoniker to succeed Karajan as the orchestra’s artistic director, and again his appointment led to the establishment of new initiatives, such as the Berliner Begegnungen, an opportunity for young players to perform with established artists, and concert seasons based on specific themes, such as “Prometheus” or “Faust”. He continued to conduct opera, both in concert, and in the theatre, with appearances in London (PelléasBoris Godunov), Vienna (Le nozze di Figaro) and, notably, in Ferrara, where he conducted a host of operas in the 1990s. His recordings for DG with the Berlin forces include a complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos with his long-standing colleague Maurizio Pollini and, in 2001, his second cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (his previous cycle, with the Wiener Philharmoniker, had been issued in 1989). A complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, including the Adagio from Symphony No.10, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker and Berliner Philharmoniker, was released in 1995.
Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000, Abbado suspended his activities for several months following surgery, but returned to the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker for two final seasons, during which he conducted Parsifal – along with Lohengrin, part of his select Wagner repertoire – in Berlin, Edinburgh and Salzburg. 
After leaving Berlin, Abbado continued to work with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, before founding the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, his “handpicked” band, made up of leading international players, in 2003, and the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna in 2004. His DG releases with the Lucerne forces include Mahler’s Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), recorded live in 2003, and with the Orchestra Mozart he recorded a groundbreaking collection of sacred music by Pergolesi, as well as Bach Brandenburg Concertos and Mozart symphonies and concertos. Major releases continued to appear: to mark his 80th birthday in June 2013, DG issued a 41-CD set The Symphony Edition, covering the core works of the symphonic repertoire, from Haydn and Mozart to Bruckner and Mahler (this edition will be reissued as four separate box sets in June 2014). The same year the company also released Abbado’s recording of Schumann’s Second Symphony.
In 2014, the 2-CD Berlin Album (originally released in 2002 and not currently available) is returning to the catalogue. Due for release this February is a brand-new recording of Mozart’s D minor and C major piano concertos, K. 466 and K. 503 respectively. For this Abbado was joined by Martha Argerich and the superb Orchestra Mozart. The months to follow will then bring new treasures, including a previously unpublished concert.
A searching interview with Die Zeit, also on the occasion of Abbado’s 80th birthday, brought revealing insights into the conductor’s approach to work and life: “Music,” he said, “has nothing to do with work for me. It is a great, profound passion.” He also referred to a maxim of his beloved grandfather’s, that “generosity brings riches”. That quality of generosity is what Julia Spinola referred to in her 2011 profile of the conductor in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “To describe Abbado as a ‘giving’ musician is more than just a metaphor for the extraordinary aura that marks his style of conducting, and his quietly insistent way of rehearsing […] Abbado endows the world with one new orchestra after another. […] He seems to have musical green fingers: whatever he touches comes to life, flourishes and blossoms.” A year later, when Abbado was listed as one of the “50 People Who Changed Classical Music Recording” in Gramophone, Douglas Boyd wrote, “What makes Claudio a great artist is his humanity, his extraordinary ability to change the sounds of the orchestra with just a gesture. […] His performances can be life-changing.”
In receipt of many awards, including the Légion d’honneur, Germany’s highest award, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Mahler Medal and honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge, Ferrara, Aberdeen and Havana, Abbado was also honoured with a Gramophone “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2012.
The approach that Abbado summed up in the words “the term ‘great conductor’ has no meaning for me. It is the composer who is great” was no empty rhetoric. After meticulous preparation, involving consultation of original sources and annotations by the composer in question, Abbado conducted everything from memory, and freed from the physical presence of the score it was perhaps this ability truly to listen that made his performances unique. In an interview given to The Guardian in 2009, Abbado made the comment, “For me, listening is the most important thing: to listen to each other, to listen to what people say, to listen to music.”
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